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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 935

One day in 1896, Mr. Olaf Eric Helton appears on Mr. Royal Earle Thompson’s dairy farm in the southern part of Texas. Helton, who last worked in the wheat fields of North Dakota, asks for a job. Thompson decides to hire Helton for seven dollars a month, even though he is “practically” the first Swede he has ever seen.

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Thompson takes advantage of his new status by going into town for groceries and a few drinks. Mrs. Ellen Thompson, his wife, in perennial ill health, is drawn out of the house by the tune that Helton is playing on a harmonica. She assumes that the new hired man is worthless, as is so often the case, and she is surprised to see that all the work has been efficiently done. Her husband, on his return, is also impressed with the work of the new employee. The only things that bother them about Helton are that he will not talk or eat enough, but his industry more than makes up for his faults.

Mr. Thompson particularly learns to enjoy the luxury of having Helton around to do the work that is below an employer’s level. There are only limited fields of activity with which a boss ought to concern himself, according to Thompson. Most of the work on a dairy farm is fit for women or hired help. It would not look right, for example, for a man to be seen slopping hogs. He worries about his dignity and reputation, and, now that he has competent help, he can concentrate on manly work.

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As a young man, Thompson had fallen in love with Ellen’s charms, and, though they have disappeared over the years, he has learned to appreciate her. He accepts the burden of her illness, and, in fact, is proud of himself for doing so. Before the arrival of Helton, however, he had been resigned to failure. The miserable condition of the farm testified to this resignation. Helton changes things, however, and, as the years pass, the farm begins to prosper.

Mrs. Thompson learns to accept Helton, even if he is different. She invites him to go to church with the family once, and she is alarmed at the rejection of the Christian invitation and his accompanying anger. On another occasion, she is upset when she discovers him shaking the boys, Arthur and Herbert, ferociously, but silently, for playing with his harmonicas. They are the only things, besides his privacy, that he seems to value. Mrs. Thompson is puzzled by Helton, but because the farm is doing well, she decides to accept him even if he is not like ordinary people.

About nine years after Helton’s arrival, another stranger appears on the farm. He introduces himself as Homer T. Hatch. He is looking for an escaped murderer whom he describes as a lunatic who disappeared from a mental institution in North Dakota. Thompson tries to defend his hired man, but Hatch says that Helton killed his own brother with a pitchfork after a quarrel over a lost harmonica. Thompson’s dislike for the fat stranger grows when he discovers that he is a bounty hunter. Hatch, however, claims that he is for law and order. He had discovered the location of Helton because of a letter the Swede had sent to his mother in North Dakota, and now Hatch believes that he is only doing his duty. Thompson counters by saying that Helton has become one of the family. Hatch is trespassing, and Thompson orders him to leave. Then something strange happens. Thompson sees a bowie knife and a pair of handcuffs in the stranger’s hands and, at the same time, spots Helton coming around the corner. The latter charges in between them, and Thompson thinks he sees the knife go into Helton’s stomach. He responds by hitting Hatch with an ax. When Mrs. Thompson appears, he tells her that he had to knock out Hatch because he killed Helton. She points out, however, that Helton is running away. It is Hatch who is dead.

Mr. Thompson is acquitted at the trial, but that does not erase his guilt. He still thinks of himself as a possible murderer. His wife, who was persuaded to testify to the lie that she had witnessed the whole scene involving the killing, does not help to ease his torment. She blames him for ruining the lives of her sons and causing the death of Helton. The Swede had been captured by a posse. He apparently died in jail as the result of the rough treatment of his captors or perhaps because of a broken spirit. It is suggested that Helton might have escaped if he had not stopped to retrieve two harmonicas that had fallen from his pocket.

Thompson, meanwhile, spends his time trying to convince people of his innocence, but he cannot convince himself or his family. He is haunted by the question of whether he had to kill the man or if he only overreacted. One night, he jumps out of bed as he is wrestling with his conscience. It frightens his wife, and she faints. When the sons come charging in, they turn against their father and threaten him with violence if he frightens their mother again. This incident is the final humiliation for Thompson. He pretends to be going for a doctor to help with Ellen’s fainting spells, but instead he writes a note that states that he killed Hatch only in defense of Helton. He then kills himself by pulling the trigger of his shotgun with his toe.

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